The Maltese Cross is a shape that has huge significance to the fire service. It is commonly worn on a badge when firefighters are in uniform. It is often printed in red.
The Maltese cross has a circle in the center and 4 shapes coming out of the edge. There are some variations on this design, but generally, it will resemble the image below.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars that occurred between 1096 and 1271. They were fought on the basis of religion. The opposing forces were Christians and Muslims, fighting to gain control over specific holy sites in the Middle East.
During this time, the knights would bear the image of the Maltese cross on their shields. The Knights of Malta were the first ones to use this design, hence the name. These knights later became a non-military and charitable organization, around the 11th and 12th centuries.
These knights were sometimes referred to as the Knights Hospitallers and were rulers of the Maltese islands between 1530 and 1798. They began to use the Maltese cross in about 1126.
The Knights of Malta began as a group of monks from a hospice in the Holy Land. Initially their purpose was just to help pilgrims traveling through, but they later began to offer an armed escort service to travellers passing through the dangerous Syrian areas.
After the success of the First Crusade they became a military order.
The charity provided help for the poverty-stricken and ill, and were instrumental in establishing a number of hospitals. During the latter half of the Crusades, these knights assisted the Knights of the Crusades (the Knights of St. John) to win back the Holy Land.
These knights were much more decadent than those that came before them. They dressed well and used regal fashion to show their allegiance.
The Knights of Malta wore large crimson capes over the top of their suits of armor. This was not just as a symbol of regality, but served a practical purpose too.
The opposing armies, the Saracens, had recently begun to use fire as a battle tactic. As knights were trying to storm the castle, the defending forces would rain down containers of naphtha and other flammable liquids.
These would drench the invading forces, and once they were all wet, lit torches were thrown down too. This set fire to the knights, inhibiting their progress.
This is where the Knights of Malta came in. They would advance on horseback as their fellow fighters were set ablaze. They would tear off their thick capes, and use this to wrap up their comrades. This would smother the flames, preventing oxygen from fuelling the fire.
This made the Knights of Malta the first in a long line of firefighters. They became highly revered for their intense bravery and heroism.
By way of thanks and respect, the admirers of the Knights of Malta began to wear the Maltese cross. It became a symbol of honor to be wearing the Maltese cross and the legend only grew as time passed.
The Maltese cross also came to be known as a type of uniform. It could be hard to recognize whether soldiers were friends or foes with all of the armor on. In the heat of battle, it is vital to quickly identify your fellow soldiers to ensure you don’t attack them.
For this reason, the Maltese cross was worn to allow soldiers to recognize their brethren with ease.
What does the Maltese cross symbolize?
The Maltese cross is meant to represent bravery and protection. When firefighters wear this cross it is meant to symbolize that they would be willing to sacrifice their lives for you, just as the Knights of Malta did.
It is worn as a badge of honor and a sign of the courage firefighters must have to do their jobs every day.
The cross has always been a symbol of hope and faith. This makes sense, as firefighters who constantly place their lives in danger need some kind of protective talisman.
The prospect of death and disability are never too far away for those in emergency services. The cross is meant to represent the presence and assistance of God.
It is also a symbol of sacrifice. As Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross for humanity’s sins, so do firefighters sacrifice their time, energy, and sometimes lives for us.
The small images contained within the cross are also significant. The common icons included are a trumpet, helmet, ladder, pickaxe, pike pole, and fire hydrant. The color red is also significant, being linked to courage and the intense heat of the fire.
The trumpet is believed to represent leadership, heralding back to the days where a speaker such as this was used to instruct the workers. The helmet represents safety, reminding firefighters of the importance of being protected while doing their jobs.
The other icons are tools that firefighters will use in their day-to-day jobs. This is meant to remind us of the high skill level involved with being a firefighter.
While the Maltese cross is inextricably linked with fighting fire, to Maltese people it has another layer of significance. It is linked to one of the most glorious periods in the country’s history and has come to represent all that is Maltese at heart.
Where would you find the Maltese cross?
The Maltese cross can be seen in a multitude of places around fire stations. You will likely notice it painted onto the side of fire trucks and on badges worn on firefighter uniforms. If a firefighter is looking for a tattoo to represent their career, the Maltese cross is often chosen.
Many people have conducted extensive research into the history of the Maltese cross. A man known as Gary Urbanowicz wrote a book called Badges of the Bravest: A Pictorial History of Fire Departments in New York City which dove into the history of the cross.
In this book, he wrote that the first documented use of the Maltese cross in fire departments was the Fire Department of New York in 1865. By 1882, Brooklyn fire departments had begun to use it too.
The Maltese cross is also still in use in Malta. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an international organization for humanitarian and medical aid, uses the cross as its symbol.
Across Malta, the cross can be found on palaces, coats of arms, and hospitals. It is commonly seen on gates and entrances to towers, forts, and fortifications. As well as this, it is seen on cannons, monuments, churches, coins, frescoes, paintings, silver, furniture, and jewelry.
Valletta, the capital city of Malta, has the highest concentration of replicas of the Maltese cross. All of the churches and palaces built around the time of the Crusades are adorned liberally with this insignia. It was believed to represent autocratic and aristocratic power.
Across the Maltese Islands, you will find a lot of these crosses. They are an integral part of many local logos, such as the Malta Tourism Authority, Air Malta, and the Malta Enterprise.
It is also part of the official football and rugby strips for the national teams. You will also find a lot of souvenirs with the cross in Malta.
The changing design
There is some disagreement in the design and appearance of the Maltese cross. The original is said to have looked more like this. This is also occasionally referred to as a Cross Patee-Nowy or a swallowtail cross.
The 8 points at the outermost parts of the cross are meant to represent the 8 aspirations and obligations of a good person. These are: live in truth; have faith; repent of sins; give proof of humility; love justice; be merciful; be sincere and whole-hearted; and endure persecution.
These points are believed to have been drawn from the Beatitudes, 8 blessings given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
There have been many different variations of the Maltese cross over time and across the world. The commonality between them is that each design bears 8 points, believed to be referencing these 8 obligations.
In Britain, the cross has been reimagined and renamed the Star of Jerusalem. The design is below. As you can see, there are 8 points to the star. These are believed to represent tact, gallantry, dexterity, observation, perseverance, loyalty, explicitness, and sympathy.
Some people claim that the cross born by the fire service is a descendant of the Cross of St Florian.
He was the patron saint of firefighting and jewelry with his image on top of the cross was commonplace. The Florian cross is displayed below, and you can see how people link it to the fire department icon.
That being said, there is very little traceable evidence to suggest that the Florian cross is the origin of the firefighter emblem. The rumors are not much more than hearsay, and there are many conflicting opinions on the history of the emblem.